There is no reason you can’t simply roast game hens as you would a chicken, but for a special occasion, brining and glazing the birds takes them to another level altogether. The process is simple, and the result is magical.
A large roast turkey is considered mandatory for many families as part of the massive meal that typifies Thanksgiving. It’s big, bold, beautiful, and definitely celebratory. When you have a large crowd to feed, there is no grander way to go.
But what if your family is small, dispersed across the country, or for whatever reason, you long for a more intimate but still festive dinner with only a few guests?
Hello, Cornish game hens! These single-serving birds are elegant and very similar in taste to chicken. Well, okay, they are chicken, but most people don’t know that, so mums the word. Game hen sounds so much more exotic, don’t you think?
There is no reason you can’t simply roast your game hens as you would a chicken, but for a special occasion, brining and glazing the birds takes them to another level altogether. The process is simple, and the result is magical.
Spiced Apple Cider Brined Roast Cornish Game Hens with Apple Cider Mustard Glaze
These over-the-top, apple-cider-infused game hens require at least 6 hours in the brining solution, so it’s best to begin preparation the day before you plan to serve.
SERVING NOTE I planned to do a post titled, Sweet & Spicy Pickled Lady Apples, in advance of this post, so that I could feature the apples alongside the game hens. But the apples went into the pickling liquid only today. If you can’t wait for the upcoming post, check out the pointers below to some other great looking recipes. Pickled apples would make a marvelous accompaniment.
TIMING NOTE Cornish game hens are usually sold frozen, so you must allow time to defrost them. If you are in Portland, Oregon, however, Zupan’s sells them already defrosted.
2 Rock Cornish game hens, defrosted if frozen
Apple Cider Brine (recipe below)
Apple Cider Mustard Glaze (recipe below)
candied or fresh crab, lady, or rose apples
fresh sage leaves
- To brine the hens, prepare Apple Cider Brine and brine the hens, as directed below.
- To prepare the glaze, prepare the Apple Cider Mustard Glaze, as indicated below. Reserve.
- To truss the birds, with a long length of kitchen twine, tie the birds so that the wings and legs are held tightly against the body of the birds. Here’s a good video that shows the trussing process in detail. It describes the process for a turkey, but the directions are the same for any bird. Put the birds, breast-side-up, on a wire rack positioned over an edged baking sheet.
- To prepare the oven, position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F.
- To glaze the birds, using a silicon basting brush, brush the entire surface of the birds with Apple Cider Mustard Glaze. Continue glazing every 10 minutes or so while roasting. The goal is to develop a deeply caramelized burnished skin.
- To roast the birds, place the baking sheet with the birds into the oven. Roast smaller hens, 1½ pounds or less, for about 25 to 30 minutes or larger hens, 1¾-2 pounds, for about 50-60 minutes. If hens brown too rapidly, cover loosely with foil for a portion of the roasting time. The wing tips and leg ends tend to burn, so watch those closely and cover as needed.
- To test for doneness, insert an [amazon_link id=”B00004XSC3″ target=”_blank” ]instant-read thermometer [/amazon_link]into the thickest part of the thigh. It should register 165°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, prick the thigh with the tip of a sharp knife. The juices should run clear.
- To serve, when they test done, remove the hens from the oven, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 10 minutes before serving whole. Two or more hens look spectacular on a serving platter surrounded by tiny candied crab, lady, or rose apples, bunches of fresh sage, and crimson maple leaves. Or simply serve each hen on a dinner plate with a sprig of fresh sage and the side dishes you prepared.
Spiced Apple Cider Brine
Brining game hens requires at least 6 hours, but it is so worth the small amount of extra time and effort. The roasted birds are seasoned all the way to the bone, and each bite delivers the subtle, alluring flavor of spiced apple cider.
2 cups unsweetened apple cider, cold
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
1 cinnamon stick, broken
1 teaspoon whole allspice
½ teaspoon whole cloves
- In a mixing bowl, combine the cold apple cider, salt, cinnamon stick, allspice berries, and whole cloves. Stir until the salt dissolves.
- Place the game hens, breast-side-down, into the brine.
- Seal tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight. Rotate the game hens once or twice while brining.
- After brining is complete, remove hens from the brine and wipe dry with paper towels. Discard the brine.
- Proceed with roasting, as directed above.
Enough for two game hens.
Apple Cider Mustard Glaze
This glaze amplifies the apple cider flavor of the Spiced Apple Cider Brine and adds a bit of a savory edge with garlic and Dijon mustard.
2 cups unsweetened apple cider, reduced to ¼ cup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- In a small saucepan, reduce the apple cider to ¼ cup.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, mustard, garlic, salt, and pepper.
- Cool, cover, and refrigerate until needed.
- Warm before using, and proceed as directed above.
Enough for two game hens.
Cookin’ with Gas (inspiration from around the web)
- Big Sis Little Dish: Crab Apples Pickled in Sherry Vinegar & Five Spice Powder
- Boston Globe: Honey-Ginger Pickled Apples
- Inside Story: Crab Apple Mostarda
- Martha Stewart: Pickled Lady Apples
Copyright 2011 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.
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This sounds fabulous . . . I am a recent convert to brining, so love an excuse to try a new recipe! I have a quick question though, which I think may be to do with country differences (I’m in the UK), is the apple cider you are using actually apple juice or is it what we call cider, which is alcoholic? Many thanks!
Susan S. Bradley
Hi Rachel! 🙂 I used the unsweetened apple juice shown in the post (Trader Joe’s McIntosh Apple Juice). And you are right: Technically, apple cider refers to the alcoholic stuff, which is not sweet at all. Don’t use that here; we want the natural sweetness of the apple juice to permeate the meat of the birds. Very good question,thanks for asking!
OMG Susan! These look amazing!! I’m going to make them for sure! I’ve been on a big chicken kick lately, as you know. Happy thanksgiving dear. I’m thankful for your blog. ?
Susan S. Bradley
Hey there Dana! How is life in Manzanita these days? Love your new cake; have to make that very soon. Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂
These look AWESOME and totally perfect for a small Thanksgiving gathering…super festive! Love!
Susan S. Bradley
Thank you Sara! Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving! 🙂